Introducing Graham Kirkham, “The most serious British collector in the marketplace”

The Yorkshire furniture tycoon is one of the most important art and antique collectors in Britain today, but his name is almost unknown



The private collector who saved Royal Holloway College’s Gainsborough and Constable from leaving Britain is Graham Kirkham, a Yorkshire furniture retailer who has quietly become one of Europe’s major art buyers. An informed source told The Art Newspaper that he is now “the most serious British collector in the marketplace”.

Last month Mr Kirkham’s advisor, Alan Hobart of Pyms Gallery, published a catalogue entitled 'The Holloway Gainsborough' to mark the picture’s three-year loan to the Tate Gallery. Written by former National Portrait Gallery director John Hayes, the booklet describes “Peasants going to market” as “one of the most ravishing pictures Gainsborough ever painted”. Although the deacquisition by Royal Holloway College was highly controversial, the Gainsborough was sold privately in October 1993 for a record £3.5 million.

The existence of the important new British collector who purchased the Gainsborough is revealed in the Pyms Gallery catalogue. The booklet is introduced by Professor Kenneth McConkey of the University of Northumbria, who in his foreword writes that the masterpiece “recently passed into an important British private collection, where it is surrounded by works of similar consequence”. Professor McConkey does not name the collector, but other sources have confirmed that he is Mr Kirkham.

Mr Kirkham has now also bought Royal Holloway’s Constable, “View of the Stour”, which was sold two months ago for £6.7 million. At the time the college announced that the sale was to “a private buyer, who wishes to remain anonymous”, adding that the purchaser was “willing to make the picture available for public display from time to time”.

Other recent purchases by Mr Kirkham are believed to have included an important Monet, “Poplars on the banks of the Epte”, which sold at Sotheby’s last June for £4,841,500. It is now in the “Impressionism in Britain” exhibition, selected by Professor McConkey, where it is credited to a “private collection, courtesy Pyms Gallery”. The show was until last month at the Barbican Art Gallery in London and opens at Dublin’s Hugh Lane Gallery of Modern Art on 1 June.

Graham Kirkham has shot to success as a businessman. The son of a Yorkshire miner, he left school with no O’ level passes and began work as a salesman in a Doncaster furniture shop. In 1969 he founded Northern Upholstery, which he set up in a former billiard hall, and in 1983 he acquired the DFS furniture company. Two years ago DFS was floated on the London Stock Exchange and Mr Kirkham received £130 million from the sale of just under half of his shares.

In addition to his multi-million pound dividend payments on his shareholding, Mr Kirkham has been paid very generous salaries: £8,785,000 in the bumper year of 1993. Documents filed with Companies House recorded that of this sum, Mr Kirkham “received approximately £5,533,637 of emoluments in the form of works of art and antiques”. Renumeration in this somewhat unconventional form is believed to have been a tax efficient method of payment.

Mr Kirkham remains chairman of DFS, which is now Britain’s leading retailer of sofas and upholstered furniture. In 1994 its turnover of £135 million generated pre-tax profits of £23 million, resulting in substantial divided payments to Kirkham. It has just been announced that DFS’s pre-tax profits in the past six months were £13 million.

Mr Kirkham, aged fifty, is renowned for his hard work and ambition. Two years ago he admitted that he was “shooting for the stars”. He also said, presumably tongue-in-cheek, that he was “not happy to be a multi-millionaire... I hear this talk of billionaires”. Mr Kirkham has a reputation as a plain-speaking Yorkshireman. “If dignity and gravitas is what is required, I don’t want any part of it”, he commented.

The acquisition of the two Royal Holloway pictures and the Monet suggests that the Kirkham collection is concentrating on both historic British and Impressionist masterpieces. His generous decision to lend works to galleries and exhibitions has been warmly welcomed in the art world.

Despite the calibre of these recent acquisitions, surrounded by works of “similar consequence”, Mr Kirkham has ambitious plans to expand his collection. An informed source claimed that the collection is still at a comparatively early stage and that will be major acquisitions in the years to come. Mr Kirkham certainly has the means. He and his family still own half of DFS and he is likely to have assets worth several hundred million pounds. Financially he is therefore in the same league as Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, the other major purchaser of historic British art.

As well as his interest in art, Mr Kirkham is an active supporter of the Conservative Party. Following a recent visit to his home by Prime Minister John Major, the Yorkshire businessman is said to have earlier this year provided an interest-free loan of £4 million to the party.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Who is Graham Kirkham?'